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What Is Rhetorical Criticism?

By A. Leverkuhn
Updated May 17, 2024
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Rhetorical criticism is the analysis of a broad range of items related to using language to have an impact on an audience. This is often but not always applied to writing, where the author intends to have a certain effect on readers. Rhetoric in general is very broadly defined as any aspect of speech or writing that reaches out to an audience. Criticism, as it is defined for rhetorical criticism, literary criticism, and other types of similar analysis, is the process of examining something for its fundamentals or underlying nature. The criticism observes units of language and other auxiliary products of speakers or writers to examine the intent as well as the context of a piece of an individual communication to an audience.

The popularity of rhetorical criticism has grown and diminished over time throughout its history in human civilization. In some ways, the rise of this type of criticism is as old as the common usage of written language. Some date this discipline back to Plato and the societies of ancient Greece.

Academics use this type of criticism to understand how communicators use symbols to affect their audiences. These researchers can study text, film, or audio recordings to find rhetorical symbols for analysis. They can utilize specific words or phrases to provide insight into the speaker’s or writer’s intent. Generally, those who study rhetoric will build a collection of symbols, try to work them together into a central thesis, and gradually develop a meta-narrative regarding the ultimate nature of that speech, writing, or rhetoric-based art work.

Some experts have built specific categories of rhetorical criticism. For instance, there is a general focus in some academic communities on the “rhetorical effect of spectacle,” where extensive rhetorical techniques are used to produce cathartic reactions in an audience. This type of study examines both the visual and auditory components of rhetoric in search of more information about how communications will be received by a large group of people.

The products of rhetorical criticism can take many forms. Research papers may draw a great deal from this kind of study. In some academic departments related to communications, students may be tested on their responses to this kind of analysis. Some academic journals may publish articles related to the study of rhetoric in contemporary societies. All of this adds to the general body of work around the use of rhetoric in diverse scenarios and contexts.

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Discussion Comments
By candyquilt — On Oct 19, 2014

Rhetorical criticism goes all the way back to ancient Greece. It's basically analyzing a piece of writing to determine how effective it is. Does it entertain the reader? Does it persuade them? What does it do and how does it do it? The how part generally has to do with ideas and symbols used within the text.

The only issue that comes to mind is that the analysis might be very individual to the critic. It's possible that one idea or term has a slightly different meaning for one person than for another. So it's subjective I think.

By fify — On Oct 19, 2014

@burcinc-- They are the same, just different terms for the same concept.

Rhetorical criticism and symbolism reminds of a theory about symbols in TV programs, cartoons and films. There are people who believe that many subconscious messages are given to audiences through these mediums. Sometimes it's through the use of words, other times through images and symbols.

I'm not sure how true this is but I do believe that many works are written with some kind of goal or agenda in mind. And in fact, it is usually expected for a piece of writing, a speech or a film to carry some sort of meaning or message.

I guess what rhetorical criticism focuses on is the symbolism of these words and images beyond what they appear to be initially.

By burcinc — On Oct 18, 2014

Are rhetorical criticism and ideological criticism the same? Or are there differences?

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